Beautiful Science

When a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, does this set off a tornado in Texas? This hypothetical scenario, commonly called “the butterfly effect”, has come to embody the popular conception of a chaotic system, where a small difference cascades towards a vastly different outcome. Chaos behaviour exists in many natural systems, including weather and climate. Understanding and modelling chaos can help address a variety of scientific and engineering questions, so scientists are developing better mathematical definitions of it to help in creating models that more accurately represent real-world chaotic systems. Researchers from the University of Maryland have come up with a new definition of chaos that applies more broadly than previous definitions, one which is compact and can be easily approximated by numerical methods, the university said in a statement. The new definition applies to a wide variety of chaotic systems, including those known as attractors (far left), forced systems (second from left) and repellers (third and fourth from left, illustrating chaotic scattering). The fourth picture shows the pattern of light created inside a pyramid of four reflective balls. The university said the discovery could one day help advance computer modelling across a wide variety of disciplines, from medicine to meteorology and beyond. PHOTO: UMD CHAOS GROUP

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 31, 2015, with the headline 'Beautiful Science'. Subscribe